South Asia

That ‘ISI Ka Banda’ at Pathankot: Modi Embraces the Vajpayee-Manmohan Line on Pakistan

Both his predecessors understood that a strategy of cultivated animosity towards Pakistan produces neither peace nor social harmony at home. It seems Modi has also reached a similar conclusion.

It was left to the PTI stringer at Pathankot to zero in on what could only be deemed as a transformative moment in our foreign policy: the “maiden overt presence on Indian soil” of an Inter-Service Intelligence officer among those Pakistani officials visiting the Pathankot Air Force base last Tuesday.

The news agency reporter managed to convey the local people’s excitement about “the ISI ka banda” (“an ISI man”). A Pathankot bookstall owner was quoted: “ISI agents have been portrayed in a number of Hindi and other regional films, but for the first time, it has been officially known that an ISI man is in town. The curiosity is obvious.”

The bookseller, presumably uninitiated into the polished sophistry of the so-called “security expert”, had stumbled upon the momentous import of the ISI man’s presence. Otherwise familiar only as a fictional character in celluloid discourse and often a designated villain in the official nationalist liturgy, the ISI man could be seen going around an Indian Air Force base, even if he was draped in a purdah, as per the firman of that curious man who happens to be our  Raksha Mantri.

The Indian polity undoubtedly reached one more milestone on the road to national maturity. Let us contrast the presence of this “ISI ka banda” in Pathankot and all that it implies with the days when a very shrill LK Advani, as a stern messenger of a sturdy nationalism and muscular foreign policy, used to joyfully engage in ISI-bashing. He would berate the government of the day for its inability to expose the ISI’s presumed nefarious designs on India. That was the time when the Sangh parivar and its political affiliate, the BJP, used to rave and rant about the ISI perfidy and mesmerise the gullible voter with the tantalising promise of fixing Pakistan once a government of deshbhakts took the oath of office in Delhi. For six years, from 1998 to 2004, the deshbhakts did lord over those nice offices atop Raisina Hill. And they also engaged in the routine business of war and peace with Pakistan, without throwing tantrums and without issuing that much promised white paper on the ISI.

Despite having to fight the Kargil war and notwithstanding the December 13, 2001, attack on parliament, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee ended up travelling to Islamabad. Of course, when Manmohan Singh tried to carry forward the Vajpayee line, the deshbhakts not only detected a great departure but also an unacceptable betrayal of national interest. And when a new government took office in May 2014, we were indeed invited to believe that Pakistan would be “sorted out” once and for all if Islamabad did not behave. We copiously drew red lines and dared Pakistan to cross them. A Doval Doctrine of “a decisive-leader-ready-to-act-decisively” was trotted out. Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj contemptuously wiped the slate clean, with her peremptory “raat gayi, baat gayi” formulation. Be warned, tough guys and dolls were at work.

Then, something gave way. Perhaps, only two individuals — the prime minister and his national security adviser — alone would be able to tell us as to what has changed. After nearly 20 months of false machismo, we seem to have quietly changed tack. And just as well.

Quietly and unostentatiously, Prime Minister Modi seems to have liberated himself from those self-serving security experts, who had so opportunistically flocked to the Vivekananda International Foundation and who were so over-willing to become pamphleteers rather than honest policy analysts. Modi seems to have seen through their intellectual and professional dishonesty. Twenty months of a real-time encounter with reality must have made him understand how dangerous was the “56-inch” trap that was periodically being sprung on him by his juvenile ministerial colleagues. And after the terror attack at Pathankot in the first week of this year, he and his team must have understood that the assault on our sovereignty could not have taken place without considerable local criminal and political linkages. Above all, by now he must have discovered — as all his predecessors did — that our bulging armed muscle was of little help. A quiet course-correction began.

That “ISI ka banda” at Pathankot signals a definite change in New Delhi’s thinking. The inclusion by Pakistan —and acceptance by India — of an ISI official mocked every pose New Delhi had struck these 20 months. Internally, while the nation has been distracted by the elaborate denouncing of “anti-nationals” in our universities, the Modi establishment has got down to doing business with Islamabad.

The only inference possible is that New Delhi, once again, has come to invest in the possibility of reasonableness in Islamabad — a marked and welcome jettisoning of “the only language the Islamabad/Rawalpindi complex understands is that of the knuckleduster.” Quietly, the Modi-Doval team has moved away from that heady but disastrous brew.

A foreign (helping) hand

Some may detect a tightening of the Americans’ clammy grip over the Modi-Doval establishment. Arguably, the very idea of a JIT could not have become palatable to New Delhi without some serious backroom suggestions from the Americans. Some may even argue that our Pakistan policy is now unduly vulnerable to advice from Washington. It has already been noted how cunningly Nawaz Sharif opted out of travelling to Washington as both he and Modi were under considerable American nudging for another meeting. The Americans remain relentless in their insistence that the Modi government should retreat from its macho posturing.

By now, it is all too obvious that the prime minister’s good friend “Barack” has seen through him, sized him up and has a good measure of his limits and liabilities. That is always the danger in too much of personal diplomacy. Personal encounters between unequal leaders generally yield a poor harvest. So, by now it must also be evident even to every middle-level MEA official that President Obama would not countenance any adventurism in South Asia. And the Americans have been quite effective in enlisting the Chinese and Russians to keep apart the warring Indians and Pakistanis. The Three Enforcers would ensure that neither the Indians nor the Pakistanis get out of line.

As prime minister, Narendra Modi has fallen back on the Vajpayee-Manmohan Singh line on Pakistan: reconciliation with Pakistan is worth an honest pursuit; without an entente with Pakistan, however sullen, there can be no peace in South Asia. And if the ruling establishment commissars continued to rattle their sabres, no serious investment, foreign or domestic, would take place. Simple. Both Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh understood that a strategy of cultivated animosity towards Pakistan produces neither peace nor social harmony at home. The presence of that “ISI ka banda” at the Pathankot air base suggests that Modi and his advisers too have reached a similar conclusion.

Harish Khare is Editor-in-Chief of The Tribune.

Courtesy: The Tribune